Book review: The First Bad Man by Miranda July

MIRANDA July’s long-awaited novel turns out to be a triple treat, says Michiko Kakutani
An obsession begins in a gym in July's intriguing debut novel. Picture: EditorialAn obsession begins in a gym in July's intriguing debut novel. Picture: Editorial
An obsession begins in a gym in July's intriguing debut novel. Picture: Editorial

The first novel by American filmmaker and artist Miranda July is like one of those strange mythological creatures – a sphinx, perhaps – that are part one thing, part another . It starts off tentatively, veers into derivative and wilfully sensational theatre-of-the-absurd drama – part Pinter, part Genet – and then mutates, miraculously, into an immensely moving portrait of motherhood and what it means to take care of a child.

Cheryl Glickman, its narrator, has fallen into a funk of low expectations and even lower energy. “Let’s say a person is down in the dumps, or maybe just lazy,” she says, “and they stop doing the dishes. Soon the dishes are piled sky-high and it seems impossible to even clean a fork. So the person starts eating with dirty forks out of dirty dishes and this makes the person feel like a homeless person. So they stop bathing. Which makes it hard to leave the house. The person begins to throw trash anywhere and pee in cups because they’re closer to the bed.”

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The solution, she insists, is what she calls her “system” – getting rid of things (dishes “can’t pile up if you don’t have them”) and conserving energy (“can’t you read the book standing right next to the shelf with your finger holding the spot you’ll put it back into? Or better yet: don’t read it.”)

Such pronouncements are ridiculous, of course, but seem meant to underscore just how depressed – and delusional – Cheryl really is. We learn that she’s been working for years at an organization called Open Palm, which started as a place where women learnt self-defence, then began selling instructional and fitness DVDs. Cheryl has long had a crush on Phillip, an older board member – whenever she sees him, she says, she has to “resist the urge to go to him like a wife, as if we’d already been a couple for a hundred thousand lifetimes. Caveman and cavewoman.” This relationship exists only in Cheryl’s head, but she tells herself that everything could “change in an instant” if she called him or ran into him.

What jolts Cheryl out of her fantasy world is the arrival at her home of an unwanted guest: Clee, the 20-year-old daughter of her employers, who say that Clee needs a place to stay in Los Angeles until she finds a job and an apartment. Clee has “a blond, tan largeness of scale” and terrible manners. She commandeers the living room, makes a mess of the kitchen and declines to bathe, thereby smelling up the place. She also radiates a sort of dumb-blonde version of Pinter-esque menace: she’s bossy and sarcastic, and she begins to physically knock Cheryl around with a “thuggy swagger”.

At this point July’s novel takes an even weirder swerve, into Genet territory. Cheryl reacts to Clee’s aggressive behaviour with self-defence moves learned from Open Palm’s DVDs and encourages Clee to follow along in the DVDs’ fictional scenarios – role-playing that becomes both an exercise in power and a bizarrely sexual enterprise, as Cheryl starts imagining herself in the role of Phillip (who rejected her for a younger woman) seducing Clee. Confusing? No doubt it’s meant to be, to mirror Cheryl’s confusions about her identity and her increasingly convoluted thinking.

These developments are described in deliberately grotesque, even repellent terms, as though July – whose films (one of which featured a talking cat) have drawn criticism for being too twee – wanted to counter accusations of preciousness by being as gross as possible. Many of these passages simply come across as gratuitous and contrived: a therapist who keeps her urine in Chinese takeaway boxes instead of using the bathroom; Clee’s feet described as reeking of “pungent foot fungus, which hit two seconds after she passed by”; and 100 mail-delivered snails crawling all over Cheryl’s house.

What powers the narrative over such annoying scenes is the subtext dealing with Cheryl’s loneliness and efforts to communicate. It is only when Cheryl transcends her self-absorption (which cause her to look upon relationships as “games” or simulations rather than human exchanges) that she begins to achieve some sort of genuine connection.

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In the last third of the book, July also wriggles free from the self-consciousness that hobbles earlier portions of the book, writing of Cheryl’s discovery of maternal love with heartfelt emotion and power. Talking to Clee’s little boy, clinging to life in the hospital and connected to all sorts of beeping machines, she tries to explain to him how human beings exist in time: “That’s what living is; you’re doing it right now as much as anyone. I could tell he was deciding. He was feeling it out and had come to no conclusions yet. The warm, dark place he had come from versus this bright, beepy, dry world.”

“Try not to base your decision on this room, it isn’t representative of the whole world,” she goes on. “Somewhere the sun is hot on a rubbery leaf, clouds are making shapes and reshaping and reshaping, a spiderweb is broken but still works. And in case he wasn’t into nature, I added: And it’s a really wild time in terms of technology. You’ll probably have a robot and that will be normal.”